Uncovered in Israel during building work, the Lod mosaics date from AD300 and are exceptionally well preserved. But what do they represent – and where are all the people?
By Christopher Lightfoot
The pace of construction of new buildings, roads, and infrastructure throughout the world has led to a number of spectacular archaeological finds in recent years. Among the most significant is that of a series of Roman mosaic floors at Lod in Israel, almost the centre of interaction between Roman, Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture, accidentally uncovered during road construction in 1996. Dating from around AD300, the mosaics are a riot of birds, shells, fishes and animals and include one of the earliest known images of both a rhinoceros and a giraffe. Although some of the animals appear to be tearing each other apart, they share seraphic, although slightly sinister, expressions, which one historian went so far as to describe as "erotic".
The Lod mosaics were of such exceptional quality, and in such an excellent state of preservation, that it was decided, wisely, to rebury them until a plan had been formulated to secure their long-term future. It wasn't until 2009 that they were carefully lifted and conserved by specialists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealing fascinating details about the way they were laid that included impressions of the feet and hands of the original craftsmen left in the wet mortar. It is highly unusual that such details of the construction process are preserved, and it is to the credit of the Israeli team that they not only documented the markings in situ, but also lifted them so that they can be exhibited alongside the mosaics.
Since 2012, while a permanent home for the mosaics was built in Israel, the collection has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York as well as the Louvre in Paris and the Altes Museum in Berlin. Next month it will be on show at Waddesdon Manor, in collaboration with the British Museum, in its only UK exhibition before travelling to St Petersburg and then back to the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Centre.
Lod is ancient Lydda, destroyed twice by the Romans, first during the Jewish war in AD66, then during the Jewish revolt in the last years of Trajan's reign (AD98-117). Refounded by Hadrian as Diospolis, it remained in Roman hands until becoming a Christian city and eventually succumbing to Arab conquerors in AD636. More recently, between 1943 and 1948, Lod was home to RAF Lydda, which later formed the nucleus of Ben Gurion airport.
Little survived of the architecture of the building that housed the mosaics, so it has proved difficult to identify its use and, indeed, its date. However, it is attractive to speculate that the series of large rooms, sumptuously decorated with mosaics and probably intended for receptions and meetings, was constructed in the early third century AD, as a result of Lod's increased wealth and status after the city was promoted to the rank of Roman colony by the emperor Septimus Severus (r AD 193–211).
The main panel of the largest mosaic is divided into a series of smaller squares and triangles in which various birds, fish and animals are depicted. These surround a larger octagonal space populated by ferocious wild animals – a lion and lioness, an elephant, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a tiger, and a wild bull – with a mountainous landscape flanking a ketos, a mythical sea creature. One adjoining panel of animal scenes clearly echoes the design and subject matter of the main panel, but the other is completely filled with a lively marine scene. Fish and dolphins are shown swimming in a transparent sea, accompanied by shells and two large merchant ships facing in opposite directions, one shown with billowing sails, the other with its mast and sails lowered.
Viewers in antiquity were encouraged to walk around and, indeed, over a mosaic to see scenes orientated in various directions. As a result, figures can be depicted as floating against a minimal background, which is ideal for heavenly divinities or sea creatures. Another feature of mosaics is that shapes and scenes are created not out of painted or carved lines but by the painstaking arrangement of individual tiles, or tesserae. The result is a surprisingly naturalistic trompe l'oeil effect, unexpected in this medium.
The Lod mosaic panels display much charm with their brightly coloured figures and lively scenes. Several of the creatures appear to have smiles on their faces, even though they are often engaged in ferocious life-and-death struggles. But what makes the mosaics so special is that their subject matter is both familiar and yet also very odd. Marine and hunting scenes are both common on Roman mosaics, but they invariably contain human or semi-divine figures such as cupids who are depicted as hunters or fishermen.
There are no people on the Lod mosaics at all, not even sailors manning the two Roman cargo ships on the marine panel. And yet the creatures shown are not outside the inhabited world – the fish are recognisable as species that could be caught in the Mediterranean (and, indeed, in one small hexagonal panel they are shown loaded into a basket ready for market); the birds, too, are familiar; the dog in one square appears to be wearing a leash, and even the exotic animals would have been known to those who frequented the games and wild beast shows in the amphitheatre. Finally, on the main axis of the central panel is another square containing a large golden krater (a large vase for holding wine and water). A pair of female panthers cling to the vase, and serve as handles. Remarkably, at least three such vessels are known to have actually existed – one is a purple-veined marble vase that was found in the ruins of the Byzantine church at Petra in Jordan. Significantly, perhaps, the other examples of panther-handled vessels are dated to the late second and early third century AD.
The panthers and the krater point to the pagan cult of Dionysus, known as the god of wine and ecstasy. Many depictions of his triumphal procession in ancient art include panthers, tigers, lions, elephants, and giraffes, all consorting peacefully together, as on the Lod mosaics. On the other hand, the inclusion of a rhinoceros and a wild bull in the central panel would bring to mind – at least to an educated Roman viewer – descriptions by the poet Martial (AD40–102) of the inaugural games at the Colosseum in AD80, in which one of the main events was a contest between a bull and a rhinoceros. The latter animal, never before seen in the Roman world, would have been brought all the way from the plains of east Africa, presumably via the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, and it caused such a stir that contemporary bronze coins minted in Rome feature a rhinoceros on their obverse.
Despite the apparent pagan and very Roman imagery, arguments can also be made for seeing the Lod mosaics as a product of Jewish society. Although not universal, a ban on human representations was a common feature of more orthodox communities, and Lod was known in antiquity as a centre of Jewish scholarship. In addition, the idea of a peaceable kingdom comes from the Book of Isaiah (11:6-9) and forms part of the messianic prophecy of a time when not only humans, but all God's creatures, would live together in peace and harmony. Likewise, the Jewish word for the sea monster in the Book of Jonah (1:17) is translated in the Septuagint as the Greek ketos. On the Arch of Titus in Rome, the creature appears on the base of the seven-branch menorah that was taken as part of the spoils from the temple after the sack of Jerusalem in AD70. It is also interesting to note that during the Jewish revol, Lod was again besieged and sacked by the Romans, commanded by the general Lusius Quietus, whose name, corrupted to Kitos, later gave the conflict the title the Kitos war. The appearance of a mythological ketos in the central panel of the Lod mosaic, flanked by a lion and lioness, and in the incongruous company of other real-life creatures, may therefore have had some significance and hidden meaning for Jews living in Lod during the third century.
Without hard evidence about the person who ordered the mosaics or about the nature of the building in which they were found, it is impossible to offer a definitive interpretation of the Lod mosaics. They remain an enigma, but one that still delights and attracts admiration – even though the modern viewer may see them principally as a tour-de-force of decorative art. Indeed, the mosaics were always meant to impress with their scale, costliness and permanency – true symbols of the Roman world that produced them.
• Christopher Lightfoot is curator of Roman art at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Predators and Prey: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel is at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, from Thursday until 2 November.